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China to cooperate with Gulf nations on nuclear energy, space

The tank farm for crude oil and refined products and the seaport of Ras Tanura, Saudi Arabia, on Jan. 11, 2018.  (CHRISTOPHE VISEUX)
By Vivian Nereim New York Times

China plans to cooperate with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries in the fields of nuclear energy, nuclear security and space exploration, President Xi Jinping said Friday, showcasing his nation’s strengthening ties with a region that was once firmly in the U.S. sphere of influence.

Xi was speaking in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, at a summit with rulers and officials from the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – during a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia. Later Friday, he held his third and final summit of the visit with other Arab and African leaders.

China and Saudi Arabia described Xi’s visit this week as a historic event ushering in a new era of relations between Beijing and the Middle East, a region that once had a mainly oil-based relationship with China, a major consumer of the Gulf’s fossil fuel exports.

Arab states are increasingly building broader ties with China that extend into arms sales, technology transfers and infrastructure projects. Chinese companies are building new cities in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, selling facial recognition technology to Gulf governments and partnering with them on artificial intelligence research. Beijing has also expanded its maritime footprint in the region, an important conduit on its Belt and Road Initiative needed to reach trading partners in Europe.

“Working with many parties is what will move us, and the whole world, to a new stage of growth and prosperity,” the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, said during a news conference Friday, emphasizing that the kingdom’s partnership with the United States remained an important one and that it rejected choosing sides. “We can’t build this growth and prosperity by distancing ourselves from opportunities from one side or the other,” he said.

In his speech Friday, Xi said that China and the Gulf countries would establish a shared “forum” for peaceful uses of nuclear energy as well as a China-Gulf center for nuclear security.

Saudi officials have spent years working on a civilian nuclear program as they try to reduce their reliance on oil, and they want to enrich the kingdom’s uranium resources, which they say are extensive enough to allow for export. But they have not yet awarded a contract for the country’s first nuclear power plants, a bidding process that a Chinese company was invited to join, alongside Korean and Russian firms.

U.S. intelligence agencies have scrutinized the Saudi efforts, and analysts have raised questions about whether they could evolve into capabilities to produce weapons-grade fuel, though others say that those concerns are inflated or years away.

China also wants closer cooperation with the Gulf countries in the fields of space exploration and infrastructure, and they are discussing establishing a shared center for moon and deep space exploration, Xi said. His country will assist the Gulf States in training their own astronauts, who will be welcomed on China’s space station to work with Chinese astronauts and to conduct scientific experiments, he added.

Space is an area of particular interest for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 37-year-old de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia. Bin Salman is an avid science fiction fan who set up the kingdom’s first space commission in 2018.

Xi said that he was also eager for the Gulf countries to use the Shanghai Petroleum and Natural Gas Exchange for the settlement of oil and gas contracts in the Chinese currency, according to an Arabic translation of a speech that he delivered to Gulf leaders, published by the official Saudi Press Agency.

Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest exporter of crude oil, which is generally priced in U.S. dollars. Moves away from that could chip away at the dollar’s global supremacy, though Saudi Arabia is unlikely to make any major shifts, as it pegs its own currency to the dollar.

Saudi Arabia has long been a close ally of the United States, but its ties to China have been expanding rapidly. Xi signed a “comprehensive strategic partnership” with King Salman of Saudi Arabia on Thursday.

The kingdom’s relationship with the United States, on the other hand, has been especially strained in the past few years, with President Joe Biden pledging on the campaign trail to treat the kingdom like a “pariah” and pressing Crown Prince Mohammed about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and Saudi citizen killed by Saudi agents in Istanbul in 2018.

Asked what Saudi Arabia’s new agreements with China meant for its relationship with the U.S., Prince Faisal, the foreign minister, said that Arab-Chinese ties “weren’t born today” and that China was already the biggest trading partner for many countries in the region.

“Getting into polarization is very negative,” he said. “We’re striving for our interests. Our interests are in the West, and our interests are in the East.”

Energy is among China’s top priorities in the Gulf over the next three to five years, Xi said during his speech, adding that China would continue to import large amounts of crude oil from the Gulf countries and planned to increase imports of natural gas.

China needs a steady supply of fossil fuels to keep its economy, the world’s second-largest, humming. That has been underscored by volatile energy prices after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this year and by a Chinese energy crisis last year that darkened cities and factories with blackouts.

China is also eager to work with Gulf governments to bolster cooperation on 5G and 6G technology for broadband cellular networks, Xi said Friday.

U.S. officials have repeatedly raised concerns about Gulf allies working with Huawei, a Chinese telecommunications giant that signed an agreement with a Saudi ministry Thursday as part of the visit.

But Gulf officials often complain that U.S. cooperation comes with strings attached, such as criticism of their human rights records.

China is a “rising power” with great economic and technological capabilities, and Arab countries want to benefit from that, said Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit. “Especially,” he added, “because they don’t offer it to you with conditions.”